“Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude - from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned.”*
It is something that can take place when somebody feels unsupported in their caring, or if they are overwhelmed by the caring responsibilities they carry. High stress levels can lead you to a point where spending time on your own needs causes feelings of guilt, and you simply overwork yourself until you feel you cannot continue with the caring you provide.
Caring is rewarding, but it can also be incredibly tough. It can be both physically and mentally challenging, and it can involve coming face-to-face with the decline in health of a loved one.
The symptoms of caregiver burnout are similar to the symptoms of stress and depression. They may include:
Withdrawal from friends and family
A sense of overwhelm
Loss of interest in activities
Feeling depressed, irritable, hopeless
Changes in appetite
Changes in sleep patterns
Waking up with a feeling of dread
Getting ill more often
Emotional and physical exhaustion
Reduced empathy for the person you are caring for
Reasons why carers can get stressed
Caring is really hard work. You are looking after people you love, but under difficult circumstances. You may even be grieving the person your parent used to be, or your life before you began caring. Perhaps you miss your professional life or the social life you used to have in the past.
Some causes of caregiver stress and burnout can include:
Simple exhaustion: caring can involve many hours of physically and emotionally demanding work.
Feeling trapped: if you don’t feel able to get external support to help your relative who needs care, you may feel obliged to do everything yourself. This can lead to you seeing no way out of your situation.
Long-term care: you don’t know how long it will go on for.
Not getting enough support: whether from family or services, if you feel alone in your caring responsibilities, this can lead to caregiver stress and burnout .
Not making as much of a difference to your loved one’s life as you had hoped: you may expect that your presence will always make them happy and that your assistance will make everything fine, but the reality is that day-to-day life can be arduous.
Money problems: people often give up their job to care for their elderly parents. This can cause financial stresses, even if they get a small quantity of social security benefits for this work.
Putting too much pressure on yourself to be the perfect carer: it’s hard work and nobody is perfect. Don’t put unrealistic demands on yourself. Of course, you want to give your best, but you have to have realistic expectations of what you are capable of.
Trying to navigate the change of role from daughter / child to carer: stress coming from caring for elderly parents is quite common. They are your own family and of course you only want the best for them. This may put a lot of pressure on you not to disappoint the people you love. It can also be a strain for both you and your elderly parents, who need to start have slightly different expectations of each other.
Social isolation: if you are spending most of your time caring, it can be difficult to have any balance in your life or prioritise friendships and relationships.
Tips on how to understand if you are stressed
Sometimes it’s obvious that we are feeling stressed or burned out but, sometimes, the signs are not so obvious. Keep an eye on your mood: have you been feeling depressed or irritable? How is your sleep? Are you sleeping more or less than usual?
Similarly, look at your eating habits. Have you found that you’re eating a lot more or a lot less, gaining or losing weight? Perhaps you can’t relax, you can’t wind down, or you’re just exhausted.
How do you feel physically? Are you covered in aches and pains or catching every cold and bug that’s doing the rounds? Maybe you are feeling upset, resentful or bitter at your situation and feel that there is nothing in your life outside of your caregiving responsibilities.
Caregiver stress can also manifest in the way you relate to the person you are caring for. Perhaps you are finding that you are impatient, frustrated or irritable with them, even when you fully intend to be as pleasant and patient as possible. You may even find that you are neglecting your caring responsibilities to some degree. This can be caused by feeling overwhelmed by those responsibilities, or by a sense of a loss of your own identity since becoming a carer, especially if your prior career was very important to you and you had to give it up.
You can find more information about this topic on our article about mental and emotional wellbeing for carers.
Tips on how to deal with caregiver stress
If you have identified that you are experiencing caregiver burnout or stress, you need some strategies to deal with how you are feeling. This will help you to improve your situation and prevent you feeling even worse in the future.
Here are our best tips for dealing with caregiver burnout and stress:
1 - Talk to friends
Friends are often our first line of defence when something goes wrong, and this situation should be no exception. They can provide support, advice and even good humour when things feel rotten, and that can be invaluable when you are overworked and overwhelmed.
It is especially valuable to talk to friends who are in a similar situation. You might be feeling completely alone with your worries, but others who have caring responsibilities will have an insight into the life you are living.
2 - Remember why you started caring in the first place
If you feel at the end of your tether, you may be wondering why you chose this life in the first place. But this question, often asked out of frustration, can actually be a good place to start.
Remembering why you wanted to care for your elderly parent may just be the motivation you need to carry on. Perhaps you wanted to know they were cared for by somebody they loved, or perhaps you wanted to spend more time with them. Whatever your motivation was, remember it and remind yourself when things are tough.
3 - Ask for practical help
Talk to other relatives to see if they can offer any help; you should not have to carry the full responsibility yourself. You can also ask people for help or make your life easier in the other aspects of your life, too. Perhaps a neighbour could pick up your child from school or you could buy ready-made food more often.
4 - Look after your health
Although you are spending much of your time looking after somebody else’s health, you must not overlook your own. Make sure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet and do your best to get enough sleep.
Regular exercise is also essential if you are to start to feel better and have more perspective on your life and responsibilities. Whether you enjoy yoga, running or hiking in the hills, make some time each week to take part in some exercise you enjoy.
5 - Contact professional carers for regular support
There is no shame in looking for professional help, and at-home carers can be absolute lifesavers to give you a break and give your relative the top-quality care they deserve.
Seek out respite care, too. Respite care can be offered as a one-off or, ideally, as a regular break for both you and your parent. Whether a carer or befriending volunteer comes to your relative’s home, or you use specially designed day care services or residential respite care, external support can be a breath of fresh air.
6 - Accept help when it is offered
You might be a proud person who does not like to accept help, or you might feel like you are giving up. But it will help everybody involved if you are less overwhelmed.
7 - Be realistic and learn
Don’t live in denial about the condition of the person you’re looking after. Be realistic about what their illness or progression is likely to be like. This will involve learning more about their condition, perhaps through a book or on the internet. Speak to your relative’s doctor or nurse, too, to find out what you can expect.
The more you know, the better equipped you will be to deal with the twists and turns that will arise as your caring journey continue.
8 - Focus on the things you can do
Every day, you are making a difference to the person you’re looking after. Focus on what you have achieved and what you are achieving every time you help them get dressed or chat to them over a cup of tea. What you are doing is wonderful and, if you can feel proud of the difference you are making, you will invariably feel less overwhelmed.
Who to speak to if you are unwell
If self-help methods are not working and you feel like you are becoming unwell, do not hesitate to visit your GP and ask for help. They will be able to suggest the best course of action for you, which may involve some mild anti-depressants or a course of counselling or therapy.
Alternatively, you may want to go directly to a private counsellor or therapist. You can find them in local directories if you search online, and then you can take a look at their websites to see if they work with people with the issues you are experiencing. Many offer a free consultation so you can see whether your personalities are a good fit.
A third option is to speak to local carers’ organisations, especially those that may have support groups. Meeting with others in the same situation can work wonders in reminding you that you are not alone and your struggles are not unique to you.
The key thing is to never feel embarrassed about needing help. Whether you chat informally to a friend or talk in depth in a professional therapy appointment, you are getting the support you need to continue the vital work you are doing.
Do you need a hand looking after your loved one at home? At SuperCarers, we can help you find the right home care for you. Feel free to give us a call on 020 8629 1030 for more information, or submit your care request now.